MULTAN: The main ingredient in most of the homemade bombs that have killed hundreds of American troops in Afghanistan is fertilizer produced by a single company in Pakistan, where the US has been pushing unsuccessfully for greater regulation.
Enough calcium ammonium nitrate fertilizer for at least 140,000 bombs was legally produced last year by Pakarab Fertilizers Ltd., then smuggled by militants and their suppliers across the porous border into southern and eastern Afghanistan, according to US officials.
The US military says around 80 per cent of Afghan bombs are made with the fertilizer, which becomes a powerful explosive when mixed with fuel oil. The rest are made from military-grade munitions like mines or shells.
The United States began talks a year and a half ago with Pakistani officials and Pakarab, one of the country's largest companies. But there is still no regulation of distribution and sale of calcium ammonium nitrate fertilizer.
''If you have a host country that has a factory making a substance that ultimately becomes the problem, then that country has to contribute at least half the solution,'' said Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who led a congressional delegation to Pakistan last week to press army and civilian leaders for action.
US officials say Pakistan and Pakarab have expressed willingness to regulate the fertilizer, which is also widely used in the manufacture of bombs used by insurgents to kill thousands of soldiers and civilians inside Pakistan. They acknowledge the difficulties: 15 years after ammonium nitrate was used in the Oklahoma City bombings, the US government only presented its proposals to regulate it on Aug. 2.
But with the death toll from homemade bombs rising almost daily inside Afghanistan, continuing inaction by Pakistani authorities will add more strain to a US-Pakistani relationship already frayed by allegations that Islamabad is aiding Afghan insurgents on its side of the border.
''This is a test,'' Casey said. ''The key thing now is to see results.'' The only producer of calcium ammonium nitrate fertilizer in Pakistan, Pakarab operates two factories in Punjab province, the country's agricultural heartland.
The largest is on the outskirts of Multan, an ancient city surrounded by thousands of acres (hectares) of mango orchards and cotton fields. A sprawling industrial complex of smoking chimneys, pipes and tanks surrounded by high walls, the 39-year-old facility churns out the chemical 24 hours a day when it's operating.
Lines of trucks wait outside to transport sacks of fertilizer to 2,000 distributors around the country, who then sell it to millions of Pakistani cotton, fruit and wheat farmers.Around Multan, dealers sit in small shops in front of piled-up sacks of ammonium nitrate and other fertilizer, haggling with farmers. Most say they are aware ammonium nitrate can be used as an explosive, but none has been told to report suspicious purchases.
Pakistani fertilizer producers are not permitted to export to Afghanistan because they are subsidized by the government and their products are meant for domestic use only. But the low price of fertilizer in Pakistan, and a chronic shortage in Afghanistan, has meant that smuggling has long been rife.
The chemical, known as CAN, is often trucked into southern Afghanistan repackaged as a harmless fertilizer. Other times, it's hidden under other goods, often after border guards have been paid a bribe, according to smugglers at the Chaman border and US officials.
One dealer, Mohammad Wassem, told The Associated Press wealthy people with links to the insurgents placed orders for all three fertilizers produced by Pakarab. They sold the two safer varieties domestically, then trucked the ammonium nitrate across the border. Truck driver Ali Jan said he makes $20 each time he crosses the border with concealed sacks of fertilizer.
''I do not take banned items every time, but I make at least 10 trips a month across the border carrying bags of fertilizer under other stuff,'' Jan said.
Only a tiny fraction of the trucks that cross the border are searched, said one US official, explaining it would be impractical to stop and search the many thousands of vehicles that cross the border each day.
Explosives can be made from a range of fertilizers, but it is easy to turn CAN into a bomb. Insurgents either grind or boil the small, off-white granules to separate the calcium from the nitrate, which is mixed with fuel oil, packed into a jug or box and then detonated.
The fertilizer is sold in 110-pound (50-kilogram) sacks, which can be used to make between two and four bombs depending on whether they are targeting vehicles or foot patrols, said Robin Best, an expert at the US military's Joint IED Defeat Organization, who visited the Multan factory in July with a US delegation.